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What happens next in ANWR

In its final weeks, the Trump Administration sold the drilling rights to portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – but it’s not over yet.


For more than six decades, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been a pristine treasure, free from oil drilling and the toxic pollution it spews. Despite all-out efforts from Big Polluters, federal protections have kept ANWR as nearly 20 million acres of untouched wild lands.

Until the final days of the Trump Administration.

"They held the lease... but no one showed up”

In the last days of the Trump Administration, officials rushed through nine 10-year leases for oil drilling in the refuge’s pristine and fragile coastal plain – a move that was only possible due to a provision tucked into a 2017 tax law.

But despite offering newfound access to some of America’s most precious lands, the Trump Administration didn’t find much interest from big oil and gas companies. None of the largest American oil companies even put in a bid, not because there isn’t oil in the ground below ANWR, but because of successful campaigns by environmental advocates pressuring big banks to stop financing projects that will accelerate the climate crisis.

As one long-time Alaskan oil and gas industry observer told NPR: “They held the lease in ANWR… but no one showed up.”

In the end, Alaska’s state-owned economic development corporation was the only bidder for most of the leases awarded – and half of the leases available received no bids. If the point of disrupting ANWR’s ecosystem and pumping more dangerous greenhouse gases into our atmosphere was to boost the economy, it seems someone forgot to tell the economy. 

A crisis for the community

ANWR is home to more than 250 species, and the coastal plan – where the drilling rights were leased out – is particularly fragile. From wolves and muskoxen to polar bears fleeing to land as sea ice melts due to warming waters, a wide array of wildlife finds a home in the refuge.

But beyond the importance of ANWR to animal life, the land also supports the people of the Gwich’in Indian Nation, who are believed to have called the region home for as many as 20,000 years. The people of the Gwich’in villages rely on the caribou that give birth in ANWR’s coastal plain to sustain their way of life and have a deep spiritual connection to the refuge’s caribou herds.

“We have a right to be caribou people,” Sarah James, a Neets’aii Gwich’in leader, told the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “We believe God put us here to take care of this part of the world — Earth and we did well with our caribou.”

The Biden Administration acts

On day one of his new administration, President Biden put a hold on any further leasing in ANWR. Citing potential legal issues in the Trump Administration’s leasing process, President Biden issued an executive order that temporarily blocked future leases from being placed on the auction block.

And he went further. The executive order also called on the new secretary of the interior to review the leasing program and conduct a new analysis of the environmental impact. This, combined with Congress’s ability to reverse the Trump Administration’s mandate to auction off more leases by 2024, has the potential to end all future leasing in the refuge.

What’s next

While the new administration has put a halt to future leasing in ANWR, the leases that the Trump Administration rushed through at the last minute are still on the books. For now.

Fifteen states, along with the Gwich’in Steering Committee, have filed suits to block the drilling before it can begin. Among other issues, the states and groups fighting to block the drilling noted that the environmental impact statement the Department of Interior used to approve the leases falsely claimed that there is no climate crisis.

And while an initial injunction to prevent the issuing of the leases was not granted by a US district court, the lawsuits continue and defenders of the ANWR’s land have vowed to fight on – and the court noted that the lawsuits can continue even as the sales proceed.

So as the few small oil companies that were awarded leases in the refuge begin preparation to disrupt one of North America’s most precious natural resources, one thing is clear: there is a long legal road ahead before any oil will be taken out of the ground in ANWR.